Psychology & Moral Theology: Collaboration & Challenges

January 15th, 2013 5:46 pm

Vivian Boland OP

Based on talk given at Bratislava on 29 March 2012


Although psychology and moral theology have human behaviour as their subject matter, each considers it from a distinct perspective and with distinct concerns. What I offer here is a sketch of ways in which these perspectives overlap, contrast with or complement each other.

Psychology Aids Moral Theology

Psychology helps moral theology in a number of ways. It offers empirical confirmation or correction of many of our intuitions about human behaviour. It reminds the moralist that the human agent is a complex being, not a disembodied rationality, for example, but an embodied creature, not just intellect but emotions, imagination, memory, and so on.

Good Passion

An example of this collaboration is the substantial treatment by Thomas Aquinas of what he calls passiones animae, the passions of the soul. It is tempting to translate passiones as ‘emotions’ or ‘feelings’ but neither English word catches the full sense of what Aquinas intends. We get a sense of his holistic understanding of human behaviour in a statement such as the following:

Since human nature means being composed of soul and body, as well as of an intellectual and a sensual nature, the good of the human being requires that he be totally subject to virtue, namely in his intellectual part and in his sensual part and in his physical part. So for human virtue it is required that the desire for due retribution [he is considering a case of justified anger] should be present not only in the rational part of the soul, but also in the sensitive part and in the body itself so that even the body is moved to serve virtue.[1]

So a full human response or action is never simply intellectual but always also emotional and physical.

Disposing Ourselves

The notion of habitus (beware of translating it simply as ‘habit’) is an idea in philosophical psychology that provides the basis for how Aquinas understands the virtues. There are things we are actually doing (I am typing this into the computer), things we have the potential to learn how to do (I could learn Chinese if I put my mind to it), but there are also things we have the ongoing capacity to activate if necessary and these last are habitus or dispositions. I can speak Italian, for example. I am not actually speaking Italian, I am typing in English, but my capacity for Italian is not simply passive potentiality as it was before I learned it. Because I have acquired the disposition of knowing Italian I can do it easily (and with pleasure) when circumstances require. But I do not need to speak Italian all the time in order to hold on to this disposition. The moral agent is a bundle of capacities and dispositions, we might say, capable of some things simply in virtue of being a human being at all and capable of other things because of the ways in which we have applied our capacities and developed our abilities.

Becoming Free

Freedom is a crucial notion for any moral discipline. If human beings are not free in their choices and actions then it makes no real sense to speak about responsibility and all guilt would be pathological. Why should we get credit or blame for actions of which we are not at least to some extent the originating source? If talk of morality is to make any sense then the cause of our actions must to some extent be our free judgement and action. Saint Augustine of Hippo was no mean psychologist. In his argument with Pelagius about freedom, Augustine’s experience (recounted so powerfully in his Confessions) taught him that human freedom itself needs to be healed and strengthened by grace. Pelagius took the view that we are grown-ups faced with good and evil, we should simply choose what is good and get on with it. Augustine knew it was not as simple as that since many things battle inside us to distort and distract our desires for what is good.

Thomas Aquinas for his part gives an account of what came to be called hostes libertatis, the enemies of freedom; things like violence, fear and desire: how do such things strengthen or weaken our freedom for action? Modern psychology offers vastly more detailed and sophisticated analyses of such enemies; analyses that are of great help to moralists in thinking about their subject. Such analyses help also to distinguish pathological guilt and healthy guilt; to distinguish feelings of guilt and recognition of guilt. It is not always wrong to feel guilty: there are situations where this is the healthy and appropriate response to where we find ourselves. The French Jesuit theologian Henri de Lubac writes: “Humanity is a marvel, wounded yet indestructible, which finds the meaning of its liberty in the confession of its guilt”.[2] A frank acknowledgement of our responsibility for doing wrong is at the same time a recognition of our dignity as free moral agents, as sources of action. There can, of course, be feelings of guilt that go beyond what is true to the circumstances: spiritual directors, counsellors and psychologists help people discern when their guilt is appropriate and when it is not.

Deadly Thoughts

Psychologists are rediscovering in ancient and medieval traditions many important things about human behaviour. For example Evagrius of Pontus, a 4th century Egyptian monk is one of the first to write about what came to be called the deadly sins. He called them logismoi, ‘thinkings’, or in modern parlance ‘phantasies’: pride, covetousness, lust, anger, gluttony, envy, sloth, and vainglory. He shows great psychological wisdom in the way he analyses the operation of these things in us, a wisdom that was developed further by later teachers such as John Cassian and Gregory the Great. Monastic life continues to present its practitioners not only with theological and spiritual questions but also with psychological ones.

Spiritual direction and pastoral care are greatly assisted by psychological knowledge and insight, by knowledge of counselling skills, of the dynamics within groups, of the mechanisms of transference and counter-transference in human relationships, and by shedding light on moral and faith development.

Psychology also challenges moral theology in a number of key areas. Understandings of unconscious motivation oblige moral theology to think again about the sources of human action. It reminds moral theology that the human being is an animal that develops and is not complete all at once. This is perfectly consistent with earlier virtue theory approaches that understood that it is only in living human life that we learn how to live it well. Psychology also poses some serious questions to moral theology about the understanding of human sexuality with which it has worked up to now.

Theology Aids Psychology

The most important way in which moral theology aids psychology is by inviting it to consider these fundamental questions: what is the human being? And what is the human being for or towards? In what direction is human fulfilment to be sought? A growing number of psychologists, becoming discontented with the understanding of the human person implicit in their discipline, have begun looking to earlier traditions in philosophy, and even in theology, in developing an adequate ‘anthropology’. It means an understanding of human nature and destiny adequate to the dignity of the human person.

Image of God

The answer to these questions in the theological traditions that come from the Bible is in terms of the image of God: the human being is a creature unique among the creatures. In some way it mirrors or images the source of creation. Just as that source is believed (by Jews, Christians, and Muslims, at least) to be intelligent, free and creative, so the human being is intelligent, free and creative. Here is how Thomas Aquinas describes it at the beginning of the moral part of his famous Summa Theologiae:

Since to say that the human being is made to God’s image implies, as John of Damascus says, that he is intelligent and free to judge and master of himself, so then, now that we have agreed that God is the exemplar of the things that issue from God’s power through God’s will, we go on to look at God’s image, that is to say, at the human being insofar as he also is the source of actions which are his own and fall under his responsibility and control.[3]

To be the image of God means to be capable of love, for which intelligence, freedom and creativity are required. Theology thus counters any temptation there might be for psychology to narrow its understanding of the human being in ways that would subvert our capacity for love. This would happen if we were to regard ourselves as merely reacting to external stimuli and as determined in our actions.

In the Beginning, the End

If the human being is the image of God, and so capable of truly loving, then human behaviour must be understood in terms of ‘ends’, not just as technical and utilitarian action. Thomas Aquinas continues the text just quoted by adding this:

Firstly we deal with the destiny of human life and then with the ways in which the human being may reach or miss this destiny. It is from their goal or end that actions towards a goal or end get their meaning.[4]

The ‘end’ of an action is first in our intention, Aquinas says, even if it is last in execution, and it is also the meaning of a human act. Philosophy and theology thus defend the meaningfulness of human action, regarding it from the point of view of the ends it serves. It means we can call actions ‘good’ or ‘bad’ because we have some conviction about the ends at which they are aimed. A good act brings us closer to enjoying those things in which our nature flourishes; a bad act leads us away from that flourishing.

After Virtue

In his influential book After Virtue, Alasdair MacIntyre shows how classical traditions in philosophy and theology always involved three elements in thinking about the morality of human action: human nature as it is; human nature as it could be with the realisation of the human telos (goal or end); and the moral precepts which enable a person to pass from one state to the other. If reason is no longer capable of judging about ends all that is left of the classical scheme is human nature as it is, and the set of precepts.[5] This is where he thinks many discussions of morality get stuck now. If there is no agreement about what human nature will be with the realisation of its goal or end then there cannot be agreement about particular judgements and actions. If that second element falls out completely then all that is left is human nature as it is and a set of precepts and it becomes increasingly difficult to see where the set of precepts comes from, why it should have binding force, why it is not simply arbitrary.

This kind of philosophical analysis, developed by theology also, should serve to enrich psychology’s contribution, fitting it into a wider and deeper contextualisation of human nature and destiny.

Set Free for Freedom

Theology also helps psychology by broadening our understanding of freedom. In his Letter to the Galatians, Saint Paul famously says ‘for freedom Christ has set us free’. The Belgian theologian Servais Pinckaers develops a crucial distinction between ‘freedom of indifference’ and ‘freedom for excellence’.

Theological Consummation of Psychology

Theology also challenges psychology in a number of ways. It questions its tendency to reduce human action to ‘behaviour’ that can be fully explained in terms of positivist science (most recently neuroscience). Theology lays down the challenge of developing a healthy understanding of moral responsibility and guilt. To quote Henri de Lubac again, he writes as follows about the loss of a sense of sin:

A universe is constructed where evil is everywhere denounced, but nowhere admitted; where it is always endured, never committed.[6]

The Bible itself speaks of sin in (at least) two senses: on the one hand it is clearly the responsibility of the individual who commits it; on the other it is a force or power working mysteriously in creation to subvert human beings, their true flourishing, and their relationship with God. In this second sense ‘sin crouches at the door’ and it leads Paul to say ‘I do not understand my own actions’.

Theology, finally, warns psychology against thinking it knows all that is necessary. Henri de Lubac once again:

Even though they cannot always pretend to possess scientific exactness these disciplines [the human sciences] can be a valuable help to us by making us see in greater detail some of the hidden mechanisms by which, as we already knew in general terms, our nature is conditioned; but if we imagine that by such means we shall succeed in penetrating into the depths of man’s being, we shall be acting like sophists.[7]

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[1] Thomas Aquinas, Disputed Questions on Evil, 12,1.

[2]  Henri de Lubac, A Brief Catechesis on Nature and Grace, (San Francisco: Ignatius Press,1988), p.157.

[3] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, I.II, prologue.

[4] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, I.II, prologue.

[5] Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, (London: Duckworth, 1981), p.52

[6] Henri de Lubac, A Brief Catechesis on Nature and Grace, (San Francisco: Ignatius Press,1988), p.136.

[7] Henri de Lubac, A Brief Catechesis on Nature and Grace, (San Francisco: Ignatius Press,1988), p.143.

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